Lessons from a pandemic: how research makes a difference

RTM Ep 1 Lessons from a pandemic how research makes a difference Large

If the era of COVID-19 has been a period of great disruption, it’s also been a time of great learning. It’s taught us one key lesson: that research matters.


As the virus ripped through the globe like a ferocious bushfire ready to torch anything in its path, in less than a year, scientists had developed multiple vaccines to halt its destruction. 

This was only made possible because researchers had been studying related viruses in their labs for decades earlier.  

So, what other new knowledge was gained through research during this historic chapter in our lives? 

Skilled migrants shape Australia

In 2020, half a million migrants left Australia as the coronavirus began taking a grip. 

According to Professor Ros Cameron, the Director of the Centre for Organisational Change and Agility at Torrens University Australia, it wasn’t long before the seismic cracks began to show across the country.

“In a lot of regions at the moment they're screaming for chefs. They can't get people in the hospitality and tourism sector.”

Professor Cameron’s research focuses on the role skilled migrants play in helping to bring economic sustainability to regions. She says skilled migration has always been crucial throughout Australia’s history. 

“We have had a long history of migration in Australia ever since World War II. Skilled migrants make up the beauty that is the multicultural society and the multicultural social fabric of Australian society.” 

Professor Cameron has seen first-hand through her research how skilled migrants can transform a region – not just by plugging in skills gaps, but by bringing a wealth of other benefits.  

“What we found in Gladstone was that 50 per cent of the GPs in that local government area were overseas trained. 25 per cent of the dentists were overseas trained.”

“It was not only employers that were benefiting from people coming to that region. It helps trigger services, and cultural and social activities. It just gives a richness to the society and the community.”

Data: the big storyteller

As the pandemic deepened, the shifting sands of employment in Australia also saw thousands of people losing their jobs. But this was not the only alarming figure to pay attention to in the news cycle. 

Data collected by the Public Health Information Development Unit (PHIDU) showed that there was a spike in young people going to emergency departments of hospitals across the country for mental health issues. 

Professor John Glover, the Director of PHIDU says these incidences have been on the rise for some time, but the pandemic simply brought it to a head. 

“There’s been quite an astounding increase over the last few years. It's been building up for about 10 or so years, but the last couple of years, it's really gone ahead.”

“It's the stress of perhaps not being able to be among their fellow students, but also the stress of worrying about the future, about their jobs. All those pressures are adding, and we're seeing that in real time.”

PHIDU is made up of a team of researchers that capture data on a range of social indicators, such as health, disability, and welfare services. This granular level of research highlights differences in population groups and influences the development of specific policies and strategic planning. 

When it comes to increasing mental health issues, Professor Glover says this data can be used to track changes in the youth demographic, but also determine how to address their specific challenges. 

“These point-specific data then can be looked at over time to see what the changes are, but they should be driving us to look very carefully about the health and wellbeing of young people.” 

Schools out: screens in

Another casualty of the pandemic was education. When bricks and mortar learning was scrapped overnight to keep students safe from a deadly virus, swapping school for screens, wasn’t an easy transition for everyone. 

Data from PHIDU showed social inequality when it came to access to the internet for online learning. Patchy or no internet connection put some students at a disadvantage. According to Dr. Athena Vongalis-Macrow, students also experienced learning loss. 

“When you have kids jumping online not prepared, there's a very big disruption in their learning. So, it's estimated that for three months of learning loss disruption, that student will fall one and a half years behind.”

“Going forward that will have an impact on our society, if we have a whole generation that's actually far behind the level of expectations that we would want.”

Dr. Vongalis-Macrow, is the Director for the Centre of Research in Education and Sustainability (CRES). Her research unpacks education systems worldwide and looks at how they work, what makes some better than others, and how to make learning equitable. 

The solution is not as easy as replicating the best education system across different countries, states Dr. Vongalis-Macrow. 

“Finland is the best education system in many ways. We can't just cart blanche take some of their learnings and apply them here. We have to research and say, what would work here? What wouldn't work here? Because we have such a multicultural country, and we have a lot of diversity in our students.” 

Listen to Research That Matters to hear more about the research projects of Professor Cameron, Professor Glover and Dr. Vongalis-Macrow in Episode 1: Our research during a time of pandemic. 

Research that Matters, is a 9-part podcast series featuring researchers from Torrens University Australia, who are working to solve complex global problems and to propel innovation. Hosted by Clement Paligaru and produced by Written & Recorded.

Find all episodes of Research that Matters at torrens.edu.au/research/research-that-matters-podcast

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